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Monday, April 29, 2013

More citizen involvement urged in Fairfax County planning process

Fifteen houses are being built on this property on Backlick Road in Annandale, despite neighborhood opposition.
The new Fairfax County land use planning process known as Fairfax Forward could lead to more strategic thinking about development, but only if the plan is revised to strengthen provisions on citizen involvement.

That’s the view of  Providence District Council (PDC) Chair Charlie Hall, who submitted comments on Fairfax Forward to the Board of Supervisors (BOS) last week. The Mason District Council supports the position of the PDC.

A staff report on Fairfax Forward issued in February “was disturbingly silent on several critical avenues of citizen and community involvement in reviewing land use proposals,” states PDC’s comments. “Without amended language to ensure full and meaningful community review, PDC fears that Fairfax Forward could be construed in a way that reduces, rather than expands, community involvement in charting Fairfax’s future.”

The BOS had originally scheduled a hearing on Fairfax Forward for April 30, but Chair Sharon Bulova postponed it until July 9. Bulova told the Annandale Blog she supports Fairfax Forward, but “it’s important to take our time with it to ensure everyone is in support of change. I don’t want to lose the citizen engagement piece in the APR [Area Plans Review] process.” Bulova referred the plan to the board’s Development Process Committee, which is scheduled to discuss it June 11.

According to Hall, despite several public meetings over the past year, “Fairfax Forward has gotten very far along without a lot of clarity about what it would do. Even though it’s been around for a couple of years, people are only now starting to focus on it, he said. “Outreach never brought clarity.” At an informational session on Fairfax Forward during a Mason District Land Use Committee meeting last June, for example, there was a lot of confusion about how it would change the planning process.

According to Hall, there were both good and bad aspects to the APR system. On the positive side, there was a very clear timetable of when new projects will be considered. But what is not good, is that “every project was reviewed one at a time, never in context,” he said.

When it comes to what Fairfax County calls “activity centers,” like Annandale and Seven Corners, Hall notes that Fairfax Forward would require a review of all the secondary impacts of redevelopment, such as increased traffic and pressures on school enrollment. “That would be a big plus,” Hall said. “It is important to look at all the consequences of development.”

Public input crucial

What’s absolutely crucial to Hall, is that Fairfax Forward be revised to ensure there is a strong requirement for public involvement.

While the plan calls for the creation of task forces at the early stages of the planning process, the PDC urges Fairfax Forward to also require “all final proposed changes to the Comprehensive Plan be subject to a back-end review by a broadly based representative citizen body, such as the traditional APR task force or a districtwide land use committee. This would ensure that any new planning visions mesh with those of resident stakeholders.”

According to the PDC, the suggestion in the staff report that the current model be replaced with “focus groups” would be a “major step backward.”

“No matter what kind of study you do, when a proposal gets to the point when it is submitted to the Planning Commission, there needs to be an opportunity for the public to take another look at it,” Hall said. “Does it really serve the community or a developer’s narrow interest? We’re calling for a back-end check.” 

Hall is also concerned about the need for strong public outreach. “Any public process is only good if people know it’s happening,” he said. “It’s very hard to get people to focus on development issues in time. When people come to the process too late in the game, it’s too hard to slow down the project.”

Neighborhood stability

Whether Fairfax Forward makes it easier for developer’s to carry out infill projects within established neighborhoods “remains to be seen,” Hall said.

PDC would like Fairfax Forward to include “a reaffirmation that there be a commitment to preserving stable neighborhoods—not just from redevelopment, but from constant redevelopment battles.” A case in point is the conflict over the Peace Valley Lane project in Ravenwood Park. The PDC also urges the county to preserve the “North-South County planning calendar” to prevent developers from trying to “aggressively use the out-of-turn planning process,” which is what happened at Peace Valley Lane.

It’s “very traumatic” when neighborhood groups have to constantly engage in battles against developers,” Hall said. “It’s like a horror movie; you beat it down and it comes back again and again.”

Another important issue involves projects that fall into more than one magisterial district. The recently approved Brightview assisted living project on Gallows Road, for example, is in Mason District but close to Providence. The PDC calls for a broad notification process so all affected stakeholders can learn about a proposed development even if it’s in another district.

“We welcome a more thoughtful approach, but will this actually work from a community perspective? Neighborhoods feel outgunned by more sophisticated developers,” Hall said. “It feels too much like an insider’s game.”

Developers want to get their projects approved as quickly as possible. On the other hand, neighborhood groups and local residents often don’t understand what’s going on and don’t get involved until it’s too late. With Fairfax Forward, “there should be more opportunities to have front-end input,” Hall said.

Getting it right is crucial, Hall said. “Land use is forever. It’s not like a tax increase where citizens can vote supervisors out of office.”

1 comment:

  1. Annandale Blog thank you for the clearest explanation I have received to date about Fairfax Forward. A year ago I attended the informational meeting at the Mason District Governmental Center about Fairfax Forward, I left not knowing what the difference was between Fairfax Forward and the Area Plan Reviews (APR) or what the heck Fairfax Forward did. Any program that starts out that nebulous can't be good for the public. I honestly felt like citizens were being pushed aside so that development could go faster. Thanks to Charlie Hall, Providence District Council, who took an enormous amount of his time to examine the program. If the County incorporates the suggested changes residents will get more of a chance to give input into how their community will be developed. However, this is not over yet and we need to make sure the suggested recommendations will be incorporated.